The State of Christianity in Africa


Minister Isaiah G. Kimani

6/10/202312 min read

The State of Christianity in Africa

Christianity in Africa is as old as Christianity itself. Christianity in Africa found its way in the first century A.D. No one knows the precise dates when Christianity first landed on African soil. There is, however, concrete evidence to conclude that Christianity probably was introduced to the African continent shortly after the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost. The book of Acts, for example, contains several passages where Christians in Africa had encounters with Christianity. Among the people who were in Jerusalem at the time of Pentecost in (Acts 2: 10, NIV) were the people from Egypt, Cyrene, and Libya. Another probable evidence of the Good News reaching Africa during the Apostolic times is when the Ethiopian Eunuch heard the Gospel message from Philip and took the good news to his home country. The Diaspora Jews had a prime role in spreading the Gospel message to Africa. The Bible in (Acts 19: 1-7, NIV) mentions Apollos, an Alexandrian Jew, a man with a longing heart for the scriptures. Even though there was no mention of the conversion of Apollos, he might likely have heard the Gospel Message in Alexandria before arriving at Ephesus.

Early Christian history gives an account of how Africa rose to be the cradle of Christianity. Decret. (2011), discussed that it was in Carthage that the African church became prominent and obtained its centrality. Decret, (2011) observed how the Diaspora Jews were already living in North Africa. He pointed out that:

Many Jews, mostly of Palestinian origin, could be found in Africa during the Roman period. Based at least on epigraphic evidence, most Jews made up the lower classes though there was a small bourgeoisie who possessed some economic power. Before the end of the third century BCE, some noteworthy Jewish settlements had been formed in Carthage, Cirta, sitifis, Auzia (Sour el-Ghozlane in southern Algeria), and toward Volubilis in Mauretania Tingitane. (p.13).

One can, therefore, deduct that the Diaspora Jews communities brought Christianity to Africa after the end of the first century CE. Carthage, Alexandria, Libya, Hippo, Nubia, and Ethiopia also became major centres of African Christianity. These centres of Christian influence, according to Decret. (2011), were, "the faces of Tertullian, Cyprian, and Augustine {which} become permanent fixtures in the African Christian story" (p. x). Galgalo, (2010) referred to this as the "first phase" of Christianity in Africa (p.9).

Christianity in North Africa experienced many opportunities and challenges. Because of the hostile political environment, the church faced many persecutions and sanctions. The church paid the ultimate price of planting the African church and then faced martyrdom and persecution.

Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa

Classification and Growth

Sub-Saharan Africa, according to this essay, is the region of the African continent that lies south of the Sahara Desert. Christianity in Sab-Saharan Africa, according to Ross et al. (2018) has experienced tremendous growth. From 134 million adherents representing 47.5% of the population in 1970 to around 565 million representing 58.7% in 2015. Ross et al. 2018) have classified Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa based "in terms of its principal ecclesial forms or traditions namely, Anglican, Independent, Orthodox, Protestant and Roman Catholic; besides, the Evangelical and Pentecostal and Charismatic movements, which cut across ecclesial affiliation (p.11).

The Introduction of Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa

Unlike in the North of Africa, where Christianity began and flourished in the first century C.E. Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa is a relatively recent phenomenon. Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa has existed for several centuries since its introduction by white missionaries from Europe and North America Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa came at different times within the last six centuries. In Southern Africa According to Chitakure, (2011), the first missionary to arrive in Matembeland in modern Zimbabwe, was "Father Gonzalo da Silveira, a native of Portugal {who} arrived at the Mutapa Court on December 26, 1560" (p.28). In East Africa, Park, (2013) gives an example of Kenya whose missionary period starts from the early catholic mission expeditions initiated by Vasco da Gama between 1498 and 1889 at the Kenyan coast and the Protestant period commencing in 1844 to 1890 in the interior of the country.

The missionaries established missions and churches in Sub-Saharan Africa several centuries ago. Chitakure (2011), has pointed out the importance of converting the African king to Christianity first. In African traditional cultures, the king held sway over his subjects. If he decided to convert to Christianity, his subjects would follow his example (p.30). The missionaries had to learn the African language and culture to help the African Christians to adapt to the new form of worship. Mission schools not only catered for the formative academic empowerment of the African society but also acted as centres of spiritual formation that included daily engagement with African-fused worship sessions.

African -Christian Versus- Christian-African

The missionary came to Africa and found people already in their African traditional beliefs and practices. Many scholars of African religion have asserted that the white missionaries did not bring God to Africa. On the contrary, they met people who had an established knowledge of God. Mugambi, (2010) has affirmed that "African peoples had a conception of God as the Supreme Being, Creator, Sustainer and Controller of the Universe. He was also experienced and thought of as Almighty, Omnipresent, Omniscient and Eternal" (p.56).

There are many modern Christians who find themselves caught up in traditional African worldviews. They find themselves at home with traditional beliefs. This phenomenon leads to the question that Galgalo, (2012) and many others have been asking. "When an 'African Christian' is faced by a cultural-religious demand that conflicts with Christian teaching, which of the two, most of the time will take priority over the other? Put differently, are 'African Christians' first Africans and then Christians or just Christians who also happen to be Africans?" (p.6). Galgalo, (2012) has provided "a simple observation {that} reveals that the African person lives in a world referenced at every point by religious meaning, where every happening finds a spiritual explanation (p.6). Galgalo, (2012) has noted that it is a norm to find Christianity becoming a second choice by far concerning traditional beliefs that takes precedence when an African seeks an explanation about spiritual issues. Michael, (2013) has joined this debate by pointing out the dilemma of identifying the true allegiance of a typical African. He has postulated that the "African people face issues of identity crisis particularly as seen in the daily bombardment of its cultural practices and traditions by Western cultures" (p.10). Michael, 2013, has provided an example of a Yoruba Man who from the surface, looks polished but might be deep in beliefs in spirits as passed on from his culture. Chitakure, (2011) adds his voice to the debate. He documents the white missionaries' success in converting Africans to Christianity but celebrates the people's resistance to the cultural onslaught by the missionaries:

"When they were finally allowed to fish for converts in Mashonaland, Masvingo, and Manicaland, before and after the unceremonious demise of King Lobengula, they managed to catch many {sic) fish for the Lord, but many of the new converts remained faithful to their traditional religion."

Chitakure, (2010) has cited his faith and traditional beliefs considering his present Christian reality. He has defended his dual beliefs in African traditions and Christianity by highlighting the case of the Shona people who accepted the Gospel message because it was realistic to them and would provide what their African traditional beliefs could not. They, however, retained faith in their belief system. Chitakure, (2011) has argued that it is unfair to lampoon the Africans for following their traditional roots since even the white missionaries had their Christian beliefs. He criticizes the white Missionaries for regarding themselves highly concerning Africans, therefore, impeding their connection with them. He signs off this debate by declaring his syncretic beliefs stance and wishes:

"When I die, I want both traditional and Christian rituals to be performed for the repose of my soul. I prefer that my soul becomes an ancestor first, then eventually retire to the Christian heaven, when it gets tired of protecting its family from evil spirits and people. If I miss the Christian heaven, as some of us will do, I still will become an ancestor—not a bad thing after all. I firmly believe that he who has two perspectives of understanding and interpreting the world is richer than the one who has only one worldview. I think that my two worldviews make me richer than people who have only one religious’ perspective" (p.24).

It is clear from this debate even among scholars that the "African religious scene" is a melting pot of worldviews with traditional religion and Christianity competing for the prime position. Chitakure, (2020) has pointed out the failure of white missionaries' approach in trying to Christianize the Africans. He argues that "the gospel message that they brought was sometimes indistinguishable from their own cultures and was offered as a one-way traffic that was intended to transform and domesticate the receiving culture, without allowing itself to be formulated and interpreted anew by that culture" (p.19-20). Michael, (2013) believes that "it is not an exaggeration to note that the Christian faith without a true engagement of the African traditions at a deeper level of dialogue becomes not only incapable of transforming Africa but also incompetent to address the problems of African society" Galgalo, (2010) has agreed with this view. He points out that "African Christianity, planted in Africa in the context of colonialism and oppression, has only managed to effect a social adjustment of sorts. At a deeper level, Christianity has failed to inspire, reshape or transform African social history and basic identity." One of the biggest challenges, therefore, lies with the way the missionaries introduced the Gospel message to Africans. Galgalo, (2010) has viewed the problem of the African who participates in unchristian practices as being caused by misunderstanding the Christian mission. He has used the phrase "Missio Dei {and} Missio Homo" to describe the difference between God's mission and man's mission. "He has described Missio Dei as heeding the call to God's mission. Missio Homo expects God to join our mission represented by our worldly concerns and superficial, outward Christianity which is antagonistic to God's mission (p.37). He has further suggested that the church should introduce theological education to all levels of the church for everyone to understand the mission of God in the African context to transform Christianity from the inside.

African Traditional Religion and Christianity- Attributes of God

Mligo, (2013) has suggested that the African tradition comprises of "belief in God, belief in divinities, belief in ancestors, belief in spirits, and the practice of medicine and magic" (p.29).In the Christian worldview, Berkhof, (n.d) has affirmed in his book, "Summary of Christian Doctrine" that "the whole Bible is given by inspiration of God, and is as such the infallible rule of faith and practice for all mankind"(p.13). Mligo, (2013) has argued that the African traditional religion shares similar attributes of God with Judeo-Christian beliefs of the transcendent God and creator. He has argued that the African traditionalist, believes that God is unknowable, the God of the Africans is omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, ever-lasting, {sic} holy, unique and Spirit (p.47-49.). Berkhof, (n.d), has listed the attributes of God as, "the incommunicable attributes: The independence or self-existence of God, the immutability of God, the infinity of God and the simplicity of God {and} communicable attributes: the knowledge of God, the wisdom of God, the goodness of God, the love of God, the holiness of God, the righteousness of God, the veracity of God and sovereignty of God" (pp.26-28). On face value, therefore, the African traditional beliefs share some similarities about the attributes of God but differ with Christianity which does not prescribe belief in divinities, belief in ancestors, belief in spirits and the practice of medicine and magic. In the African religious worldview, a living person is a part of the cultural web of the ancestors, the living dead and part of the environment that comprises plants and animals. The remains of the deceased were well interred. The human spirit was considered active and part of the community. According to most African traditional beliefs, the world of the spirits consists of good and evil spirits, the source of blessings or torment. One must know how to honour the ancestors and to do the necessary rituals. It is common for medicine men or even wizards to communicate with the spirits for either good or bad intentions. It is against this backdrop that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit in Christianity is palatable to a typical African believer. Observing closely from one of the anchor doctrines in most independent and indigenous churches, Doctrine does not pillar on Christological underpinnings but about its Holy Spirit credentials. The African is not only communicating with the spirit of the ancestors or living-dead but with the Holy Spirit who is God, the third person of the Trinity.

Duality Syncretic Tendencies and Prosperity Gospel

To some, the duo religious nature of the African Christians, who show allegiance to both the Christian faith is evidence of engagement in syncretism. Merriam-Webster, (2020) syncretism is, "the combination of different forms of belief or practice". According to research data from World Christian Database, The African traditional religion is slowly losing members to Christianity even though unofficially, the number of Africans who secretly subscribe or have an affinity to its beliefs and practices still holds strong. There is a new crop of modern believers who have now sought a new home in the mainstream, evangelical and Pentecostal churches with the Pentecostal churches being among the fastest growing in Sub-Saharan Africa. (World Christian Database) Despite this contemporary development, The African has not entirely discarded his traditional beliefs. The typical African faces the acid test of allegiance. The African Christians face the temptation of indulging in traditional rites, rituals and ceremonies that are unchristian. Some find it hard to refuse to participate in some traditions that are incompatible with Christianity. Syncretic tendencies are, therefore, a way of life for most African Christians. Ross et al. (2018) have noted the mushrooming of

"Pentecostal churches that promise people fantastic healing miracles and abundant wealth have become a threat to traditional churches, which preach the theology of the cross as a way to go to heaven" (p.67). The sermons are full of promises of prosperity and material blessings of the believer by a benevolent God, waiting for a signal of faith from the believer to act. Heuser, (2016) states that the Prosperity Gospel "centres on a complex liaison of speech {and} acts {on} surrounding faith, wealth, health and victory, combined with ritual practices around secondary evidence of divine blessings" (p.1). Prosperity Gospel is one of the few controversial theologies that has permeated the Pentecostal and Charismatic churches in Africa in recent times. Some of the preachers and televangelists propagating the Prosperity Gospel, instant healing, and miracles according to Ross et al. (2018) are T.B Joshua, Chris Oyakhilome, David Oyedepo and others. Many are fascinated by the demonstration of miracles, healings and prosperity promises.


In conclusion, African Christianity is as old as Christianity itself. Its history ties with the introduction of Christianity and spread around the Middle East. Christianity was first introduced in North Africa in the first and second century C.E. before almost disappearing in the North about ten centuries later. The second phase of Missionary activity happened from the 16- 20th century through the efforts of missionaries from Europe and America. It was the time the Gospel reached and spread in Sub-Saharan Africa. The white missionaries set out mission centres which acted as operational bases for reaching out to the "pagan" Africans. The missionary efforts are a mixed bag of successes and failures. The missionaries succeeded in introducing Christianity to Africa alongside developments like education and health. The Africans were in a much better place as the African could read and write and access modern healthcare facilities. On the drawback, the missionaries demonized the African traditions and did not acculturate or interpret the Christian message considering the African traditions. The missionaries brought denominational divisions alongside imperialism imposed on Africans by the missionary-sending countries.

Denominationalism, secessionism, and indigenization was a hallmark of Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa. Many churches expanded after the introduction of the missionaries, while others split from mother churches to form independent churches. Africans also initiated new churches conforming with incorporating Christian and traditional beliefs. The religious scene reflects the reality of these developments today. The mainstream churches such as the Catholics, Anglicans, Methodists, and Presbyterians have stayed true to their missionary roots in terms of doctrine, liturgy and practice. Indigenous churches have experienced many opportunities and challenges after incorporating Christianity with traditional beliefs. It was one of the reasons why many African independent churches split from missionary churches.

Many Pentecostal and Charismatic churches found their bearing from the Azusa Street revival of 1906 in the USA. The missionaries influenced by this revival brought the Pentecostal brand of Christianity to Africa. The Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity in Africa is a rather personality-driven form of Christianity where a charismatic leader is a focus, unlike the older mainstream evangelical Christianity which has solid institutional establishment and structures. Pentecostal and Charismatic Christianity has found a fanatical following in urban cities. One can tune in to televangelists who are well-known personality brands from the west, Central, east, and southern regions of Africa. The biggest conundrum in African Christianity is whether the African is an 'African Christian or Christian African'. The shallowness, hypocrisy and syncretism of African Christianity are areas of concern. One of the observations that Galgalo, (2012) enumerates is that Christianity in Africa is a stranger within. It is an area Scholars have been debating about this as well to find the solutions for this current state of African Christianity considering its African traditional beliefs and practices.


Francois Decret. (2011). Early Christianity in North Africa. James Clarke & Co.

Galgalo, J. D. (2012). African Christianity: The Stranger Within. Zapf Chancery Publishers Africa Ltd.

Heuser, A. (2016). Charting African Prosperity Gospel economies. HTS Theological Studies, 72(4), 1-9.

John Chitakure. (2017). African Traditional Religion Encounters Christianity: The Resilience of a Demonized Religion. Pickwick Publications.

Johnson, T. M. & Zurlo, G.A. (2016, March). (eds), World Christian Database (Leiden/Boston: Brill)

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (10th ed.). (1999). Merriam-Webster Incorporated.

Michael, M. (2013). Christian Theology and African Traditions. The Lutterworth Press.

Mugambi, J. N. K. (2010). A Comparative Study of Religions: Second Edition: Vol. Second edition. University of Nairobi Press.

New International Version. (2011).

Ross, K. R., Asamoah-Gyadu, J. K., & Johnson, T. M. (2018). Christianity in Sub-Saharan Africa: Vol. [Enhanced Credo edition]. EUP.

Syncretism. 2020. In Retrieved December 14, 2020, from